Rubina Bi was 14-years-old when her uncle suggested a surprise shopping trip.
Dreaming of the new clothes she was about to buy, the innocent girl’s secure world was shattered when she was separated from her family and sold to a physically disabled man for a mere 50,000 rupees.
Two years have passed since Rubina’s childhood was stolen from her.
Now a wife and mother, tears well up in her eyes as she recalls playing with friends in Kolkata, dreaming of college education and looking forward to one day marrying the man of her dreams.
Instead, she lives 1,500 miles from home in the Kashmir valley – closer to China and Pakistan than to the parents she has not seen since she was sold.
“My distant uncle took me out on the pretext of shopping,” Rubina said. “Instead he brought me here, a long way from my family.”
Fayaz Ahmad, 28, spent his life savings to buy his new wife.
“It was only when Ali Hassan, the uncle who sold me, took Rs 50,000 from Fayaz that I realised I had been sold,” said Rubina. “But by that time it was too late – the deal had been struck.
“I told Ali Hassan this was not right. I said ‘I am not a sellable item. How can you do this with me? You are my relative. This is a sin in the eyes of Allah.’
“But he just smiled and told me not to worry. He said he would give half the amount to my parents back home, so that they would not have to live a life of poverty anymore.
“He is a liar. I came to know that not a single penny was paid to my family. There is nothing I can do – this is my life now.”
Rubina is one among dozens of girls from West Bengal, all sold as child brides, who live in the same village.
Their new home, Banihal, is the bustling heart of northern India’s human trafficking network.
Hundreds of girls from West Bengal have been sold as child brides in the village’s huge, unscrupulous bazaar.
The trade is thriving – the younger the girl, the higher the price.
Shadowy middlemen operating on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway, India’s only surface link to Kashmir, an insurgency-hit but picturesque place, make big bucks from young brides.
Girls aged between 12 and 15 years fetch the highest price, depending upon their physical attributes. Middlemen make a profit of up to Rs 30,000 for each child they sell.
Rubina’s life changed forever when she was sold to Fayaz.
Her playful, lazy days have been overtaken by household responsibilities. Now a mother to 18-month-old Salman Bhat, her time is spent either looking after the child she did not want or on household chores.
“I am a child myself but have to take care of a child,” she said angrily.
“It is not my fault. I was forced into marriage while my friends at home are still free to play. Now I can do nothing but live with this destiny.
“Girls of my age should be playing or studying but you can see my fate. I am taking care of a child – my own child that I did not even want from a husband I did not agree to.”
“I miss my family, my home, everything. My childhood dreams have vanished. I don’t think about anything anymore. Most of my time is spent looking after my son.”
Husband Fayaz Ahmad, who is lame in his right leg, sees nothing wrong with buying a child bride. It was his only chance to marry.
“No one here in Banihal was ready to marry their daughter to an unemployed man with a physical disability,” he said.
“And therefore this was my only opportunity to lead a happy life with a good wife.”
The trade in child brides is open for all to see in Banihal. The police discretely do nothing.
“You can call this a social crime,” said a police officer. “You can say these girls are being smuggled into our state.”
He confirmed he was aware of the trafficking of children but declined to say whether he was doing to curb it.
Child weddings are illegal in India, but still girls as young as nine are married off, sometimes in mass weddings, across the country.